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Chapter 4: the hour and the man.

The providential man was not yet twenty-five. In personal appearance he was quite the reverse of his friend Lundy. Garrison was gifted with a body that matched his mind, strong, straight, sound in every part, and proportioned in every member. As he stood he was much above the medium height. His dark hair had already partially left the crown of the high dome-shaped head. His forehead combined height with breadth, which, taken in connection with the brown eyes covered with the now habitual glasses, lent to his countenance a striking air of moral serenity and elevation. Force, firmness, no ordinary self-reliance and courage found masterly expression in the rest of the face. There was through the whole physical man a nice blending of strength and delicacy of structure. The impression of fineness and finish was perhaps mainly owing to the woman-like purity and freshness of skin and color, which overspread the virile lines and features of the face from brow to chin. What one saw in that face was the quality of justice made flesh, good-will to men personified.

This characterization of the reformer's countenance may be considered absurd by some readers. But absurd it is not. People who had read his stern [93] denunciations of slave-holding and slaveholders, and who had formed their image of the man from his “hard language” and their own prejudices could not recognize the original when they met him. His manner was peculiarly winning and attractive, and in personal intercourse almost instantly disarmed hostility. The even gentleness of his rich voice, his unfailing courtesy and good temper, his quick eye for harmless pleasantries, his hearty laugh, the Quakerlike calmness, deliberateness, and meekness, with which he would meet objections and argue the righteousness of his cause, his sweet reasonableness and companionableness were in strange contrast to popular misconceptions and caricatures of him. No one needed to be persuaded, who had once conversed with him, that there was no hatred or vindictiveness in his severities of language toward slaveholders. That he was no Jacobin, no enemy of society, was perceived the moment one looked into his grave, kind face, or caught the warm accents of his pacific tones, or listened to the sedate intensity, and humanity of his discourses on the enormity of American slavery as they fell from him in conversations between man and man. Here is a case in point, a typical incident in the life of the reformer; it occurred, it is true, when he was twenty-seven, but it might have occurred at twenty-five quite as well; it is narrated by Samuel J. May in his recollections of the antislavery conflict: On his way from New York to Philadelphia with Garrison, Mr. May fell into a discussion with a pro-slavery passenger on the vexed question of the day. There was the common proslavery reasoning, which May answered as well as he [94] was able. Presently Mr. Garrison drew near the disputants, whereupon May took the opportunity to shift the anti-slavery burden of the contention to his leader's shoulders. All of his most radical and unpopular Abolition doctrines Garrison immediately proceeded to expound to his opponent. “After a long conversation,” says Mr. May, “which attracted as many as could get within hearing, the gentleman said, courteously : ‘ I have been much interested, sir, in what you have said, and in the exceedingly frank and temperate manner in which you have treated the subject. If all Abolitionists were like you, there would be much less opposition to your enterprise. But, sir, depend upon it, that hair-brained, reckless, violent fanatic, Garrison, will damage, if he does not shipwreck, any cause.’ Stepping forward, I replied, ‘ Allow me, sir, to introduce you to Mr. Garrison, of whom you entertain so bad an opinion. The gentleman you have been talking with is he.’ ”

Or take Harriet Martineau's first impressions on seeing him. “His aspect put to flight in an instant what prejudices his slanderers had raised in me. I was wholly taken by surprise. It was a countenance glowing with health, and wholly expressive of purity, animation and gentleness. I did not wonder at the citizen who, seeing a print of Garrison at a shop window without a name to it, went in and bought it, and framed it as the most saintlike of countenances.”

The appearance of such a man on the stage of our history as a nation, at this hour, was providential. His coming was in the fulness of time. A rapid review of events anterior to the advent of Garrison will serve to place this matter more clearly before the [95] general reader. To begin, then, at the beginning we have two ships off the American coast, the one casting anchor in Plymouth harbor, the other discharging its cargo at Jamestown. They were both freighted with human souls. But how different! Despotism landed at Jamestown, democracy at Plymouth. Here in the germ was the Southern idea, slave labor, slave institutions; and here also was the Northern idea, free labor, free institutions. Once planted they grew, each seed idea multiplying after its kind. In course of time there arose on one side an industrial system in which the plantation principle, race-rule and race-slavery, were organic centers; and, on the other, a social system in which the principle of popular power and government, the town meeting, and the common school were the ganglia of social expansion. Contrary ideas beget naturally enough contrary interests and institutions. So it is no matter for surprise that the local interests and institutions of the thirteen revolted colonies lacked homogeneity and identity. What was calculated to promote the general welfare of the Northern one, it was quite possible might work a totally opposite result in the Southern. For, indeed, while there were slaves in them all, the slave system had taken root in Southern soil only; and while on the other hand the spirit of freedom was existent in each, free labor had rooted itself in Northern ground solely.

As the war of the Revolution was an uprising against arbitrary power, and for the establishment of political liberty, it pushed easily into the foreground the larger subject of human rights. Most of the leading actors felt the inconsistency of keeping some [96] men in bondage, when they were fighting to rid themselves of a tyranny which, in comparison to the other, was a state of honorable freedom. Their humanity condemned African slavery, and they earnestly desired its extinction. The Declaration of Independence proves to how high a level the tide of freedom rose in the colonies. The grand truths by it proclaimed the signers of that instrument did not restrict in their application to some men to the exclusion of other men. They wrote “All men,” and they meant exactly what they wrote. Too simply honest and great they were to mean less than their solemn and deliberate words.

On political as well as on moral grounds they desired emancipation. But there was a difficulty which at the time proved insuperable. The nation-making principle, the idea of country, was just emerging out of the nebulous civil conditions and relations of the ante-Revolutionary epoch. There was no existent central authority to reach the evil within the States except the local governments of the States respectively. And States in revolt against the central authority of the mother country would hardly be disposed to divest themselves of any part of their newly asserted right to govern themselves for the purpose of conferring the same upon any other political body. To each State, then, the question was necessarily left for settlement.

The war, during its continuance, absorbed the united resources and energies of the people and their leaders. The anti-slavery movement made accordingly but small progress. Reforms thrive only when they get a hearing. Public attention is the food on [97] which they thrive. But precious little of this food was the Abolition cause able to snatch in those bitter years. It could not grow. It remained in the gristle --hardly more than a sentiment. But the sentiment was a seed, the promise and potency of kindlier times. With the close of the long struggle other questions arose; got the people's ears; fixed the attention of the leaders. Scant notice could emancipation extort from men who had to repair the ravages of an exhausting war, reconstruct shattered fortunes, restore civil sociciety in parts tumbling into ruinous disorder. The instinct of self-preservation was altogether too masterful for the moral starveling. It succumbed to circumstances, content to obtain an occasional sermon, an annual address, a few scattered societies to keep a human glow in the bosom of the infant Confederacy.

The Confederation failed. The formation of a more perfect union was demanded and undertaken. This transcendent task straightway thrust into the background every other enterprise and interest. The feeble activity of the freedom-making principle was checked, for the time being, by the energy of the nation-making power. They were not antagonistic forces-only in the natural order of things, the earliest stages in the evolution of the former had to come after the first steps were taken in the development of the latter. Before there could start a general movement against American slavery there must needs be an American nation. An American nation was, in the year 1787, in process of successful development. With the adoption of the Constitution, the national principle entered on a period of marvelous expansion and activity. [98]

Let it not, however, be hastily concluded that freedom meanwhile was in total eclipse, that the antislavery sentiment was absolutely without influence. For it unquestionably inspired the Ordinance of 1787. The Northwest Territory, out of which were subsequently organized the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, was thereby, forever secured to the Northern idea, and free labor. Supplementary to this grand act was the Constitutional prohibition of the African slave-trade after the year 1808. Together they were intended to discourage the growth of slavery — the first by restricting its territorial extension, the second, by arresting its numerical increase. And without doubt they would have placed the evil in the way of ultimate extinction had other and far reaching causes not intervened to produce adverse social and political conditions.

The first of these causes, in point of time, were certain labor-saving inventions in England, which vastly enhanced the demand for raw cotton. Arkwright's invention of the spinning machine about twenty years prior to the adoption of the Constitution, perfected by the spinning-jenny of Hargreaves, and the mule of Crompton, “turned Lancashire,” the historian Green says, “into a hive of industry.” The then rapid demand for cotton operated in time as a stimulus to its production in America. Increased productivity raised the value of slave property and slave soil. But the slow and tedious hand method of separating the fiber of the cotton bulb from the seed greatly limited the ability of the Cotton States to meet and satisfy the fast growing demand of the

English manufacturers, until Eli Whitney, in 1793, by [99] an ingenious invention solved the problem of supply for these States. The cotton gin was not long in proving itself the other half — the other hand of the spinning machine.

From that year the slave interests of the South rose in market value, and its industrial system assumed unexpected importance in the economic world. The increased production of cotton led directly to increased demand for slave labor and slave soil. The increased demand for slave labor the Constitutional provision relating to the African slave trade operated in part to satisfy. The increased demand for slave soil was likewise satisfied by the cession to the United States by Georgia and North Carolina of the Southwest Territory, with provisos practically securing it to slavery. Out of this new national territory were subsequently carved the slave States of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Slave soil unlike free soil, is incapable of sustaining a dense population. Slave labor calls for large spaces within which to multiply and prosper. The purchase of Louisiana and the acquisition of Florida met this agrarian necessity on the part of the South. Immense, unsettled areas thus fell to the lot of the slave system at the crisis of its material expansion and prosperity. The domestic slave-trade under the impetus of settling these vast regions according to the plantation principle, became an enormous and spreading industry. The crop of slaves was not less profitable than the crop of cotton. A Southern white man had but to buy a score of slaves and a few hundred acres to get “rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” So at least calculated the average Southern man. [100]

This revival of slavery disappointed the humane expectation of its decline and ultimate extinction entertained by the founders of the republic. It built up instead a growing and formidable slave class, and interest in the Union. With the rise of giant slave interests, there followed the rise of a power devoted to their encouragement and protection.

Three far-reaching concessions the slave States obtained in the convention of 1787, viz., the right to import slaves from Africa until 1808; the rendition of fugitive slaves escaping into the free States, and the three-fifths slave representation clause of the Constitution-all of which added vastly to the security and value of this species of property, and as a consequence contributed to the slave revival.

The equality of the States in the upper branch of the National Legislature, taken in connection with the right of the slave States to count five slaves as three freemen in the apportionment of representatives to the lower House of Congress, gave the Southern section an almost immediate ascendency in the Federal Government. To the South was thus opened by an unexpected combination of circumstances a wide avenue for the acquisition of fabulous wealth. and to Southern public men an incomparable arena for the exercise of political abilities and leadership. An institution, which thus ministered to two of the strongest passions of mankind-avarice and ambition — was certain to excite the most intense attachment. Its safety naturally, therefore, became among the slave class an object of prime importance. Southern jealousy in this regard ultimated inevitably in Southern narrowness, Southern sectionalism, which [101] early manifested themselves in the exclusion from lead in national affairs of Northern public men, reputed to be unfriendly to slavery. Webster as late as 1830, protested warmly against this intolerance. Like begets like. And the proscribing of anti-sl very politicians by the South, created in turn not a little sectional feeling at the North, and helped to stimulate there a consciousness of sectional differences, of antagonism of interests between the two halves of the Union.

Discontent with the original basis of the Union, which had given the South its political coign of vantage, broke out first in New England. The occasion, though not the cause, of this discontent was, perhaps, the downfall of the Federal party, whose stronghold was in the East. The commercial and industrial crisis brought on by the embargo, and which beggared, on the authority of Webster, “thousands of families and hundreds of thousands of individuals” fanned this Eastern dissatisfaction into almost open disaffection towards a government dominated by Southern influence, and directed by Southern statesmanship. To the preponderance of this Southern element in national legislation New England traced her misfortunes. She was opposed to the War of 1812, but was overruled to her hurt by the South. In these circumstances New England went for correcting the inequalities of the original basis of the Union, which gave to the South its undue preponderance in shaping national laws and policies. This was the purpose of the Hartford Convention, which proposed the abrogation of the slave representation clause of the Constitution, and [102] the imposition of a check upon the admission of new States into the Union. The second proposition did not say “new slave States,” but new slave States was, nevertheless, intended by the Convention. Here in point of time and magnitude, was the first distinct collision of the two sets of ideas and interests of the Republic.

Following the Treaty of Ghent other and imperious questions engaged the public attention-questions of the tariff, of finance, internal improvements, national defence, a new navy, forts and fortifications. Hard times, too, engrossed an enormous share of this attention. The immediate needs and problems of the hour pushed into the background all less pressing ones. The slavery question amidst the clamor and babel of emergent and material interests, lost something of its sectional heat and character. But its fires were not extinguished, only banked as events were speedily to reveal.

The application of Missouri for admission into the Union as a slave State four years after the Hartford Convention blew to a blaze the covered embers of strife between the sections. The North was violently agitated. For the admission of a new slave State meant two more slave votes in the Senate, and an increase on the old inequitable basis of slave representation in the lower House of Congress. It meant to the Northern section indefinite Southern ascendency, prolonged Southern lead in national legislation. All the smouldering passions of the earlier period, of embargo, and non-intercourse, and the war of 1812, flamed suddenly and fiercely in the heart of the free States. [103]

The length and bitterness of that controversy excited the gravest apprehensions for the stability of the Union. The dread of disunion led to mutual concessions, to the Missouri Compromise. The slaveholding section got its immediate claim allowed, and the free States secured the erection of a line to the north of which slavery was forever prohibited. And besides this, the admission of Maine was supposed to neutralize whatever political advantages, which would accrue to the South from the admission of Missouri as a slave State. Both sections were content, and the slavery question was thought to be permanently settled. With this final disposition of an ugly problem, the peace and permanence of the Union were viewed universally as fixed facts. Still, considering the gravity of the case, a little precaution would not go amiss. The slavery question had shaken men's faith in the durability of the republic. It was therefore adjudged a highly dangerous subject. The political physicians with one accord prescribed on the ounce-of-prevention principle, quiet, silence, and oblivion, to be administered in large and increasing doses to both sections. Mum was the word, and mum the country solemnly and suddenly became from Maine to Georgia. But, alas! beneath the ashes of this Missouri business, deep below the unnatural silence and quiet, inextinguishable fires were burning and working again to the surface of politics. In such circumstances a fresh outbreak of old animosities must occur as soon as the subterranean heat should reach the point of highest combustibility in the federal system. The tariff proved to be that point of highest combustibility. [104]

Alexander Hamilton inaugurated the policy of giving governmental aid to infant manufactures. The wisdom of diversifying the industries of the young nation was acquiesced in by the leading statesmen of both sections. Beset as the republic then was by international forces hostile to democratic institutions, it was natural enough that the great men who presided over its early years should seek by Federal legislation to render it, as speedily and completely as possible, industrially self-dependent and selfsupporting. The war of 1812 enforced anew upon the attention of statesmen the importance of industrial independence. The war debt, together with certain governmental enterprises and expenditures growing out of the war, was largely, if not wholly, responsible for the tariff of 1816. This act dates the rise of our American system of protection. It is curious to note that Southern men were the leaders of this new departure in the national fiscal policy. Calhoun, Clay, and Lowndes were the guiding spirits of that period of industrial ferment and activity. They little dreamt what economic evils were to fall in consequence upon the South. That section was not slow to feel the unequal action of the protective principle. The character of its labor incapacitated the South from dividing the benefits of the new revenue policy with its free rival. The South of necessity was restricted to a single industry, the tillage of the earth. Slave labor did not possess the intelligence, the skill, the patience, the mechanical versatility to embark successfully in manufacturing enterprises. Free labor monopolised the protected industries, and Northern capital caught all the golden showers of fiscal legislation. [105] What the South needed, from an economic point of view, was unrestricted access to the markets of the world for her products, and the freest competition of the world in her own markets. The limitations imposed upon the slave States by their industrial system was in itself a tremendous handicap in their struggle for an advantageous place in the New World of the nineteenth century; in their struggle with their free sisters for political leadership in the Union. But with the development of the protective principle those States fell into sore financial distress, were ground between the upper millstone of the protective system and the nether millstone of their own industrial system. Prosperity and plenty did presently disappear from that section and settled in the North. In 1828 Benton drew this dark picture of the state of the South:

In place of wealth, a universal pressure for money was felt; not enough for common expenses; the price of all property down; the country drooping and languishing; towns and cities decaying, and the frugal habits of the people pushed to the verge of universal self-denial for the preservation of their family estates.

He did not hesitate to charge to Federal legislation the responsibility for all this poverty and distress, for he proceeds to remark that:

Under this legislation the exports of the South have been made the basis of the Federal revenue. The twenty odd millions annually levied upon imported goods are deducted out of the price of their cotton, rice, and tobacco, either in the diminished prices which they receive for those staples in foreign [106] ports, or in the increased price which they pay for the articles they have to consume at home.

A suffering people are not apt to reason clearly or justly on the causes which have brought them to indigence. They feel their wretchedness and reach out for a victim. And the law-making power usually happens to be that victim. As the distress of the South increased, the belief that Federal legislation was responsible for it increased likewise. The spread and deepening of this conviction in the Southern States precipitated among them an ominous crisis in their attachment to the Union. Nullification and an embittered sectionalism was the hateful legacy bequeathed to the republic by the tariff controversy. It left the South in a hyper-sensitive state in all matters relating to her domestic interests. It left the North in a hyper-sensitive condition on all matters touching the peace and stability of the Union. The silence and oblivion policy on the subject of slavery was renewed with tenfold intensity. Ulysses-like the free States bound themselves, their right of free speech, and their freedom of the press on this subject, for fear of the Siren voices which came thrilling on every breeze from the South. Quiet was the word, and quiet the leaders in Church and State sought to enforce upon the people, to the end that the vision of “States dissevered, discordant, belligerent, of a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched it may be, in fraternal blood,” might not come to pass for their “glorious Union.”

The increasing friction and heat between the sections during twenty-five years, had effected every portion of the Federal system, and created conditions [107] favorable to a violent explosion. Sectional differences of a political and industrial complexion, forty years had sufficed to develop. Sectional differences of a moral and social character forty years had also sufficed to generate. To kindle all those differences, all that mass of combustible feelings and forces into a general conflagration a spark only was wanted. And out of the glowing humanity of one man the spark was suddenly struck.

It is curious to note that in the year 1829, the very year in which William Lloyd Garrison landed in Baltimore, and began the editorship of The Genius of Universal Emancizpation, the American Convention, or national assembly of the old State societies for the abolition of slavery, fell into desuetude. It was as if Providence was clearing the debris of an old dispensation out of the way of the new one which his prophet was beginning to herald, as if guarding against all possibility of having the new wine, then soon to be pressed from the moral vintage of the nation, put into old bottles. The Hour for a new movement against slavery had come, and with its arrival the Man to hail it had also come.

Other men had spoken and written against slavery, and labored for the freedom of the slave before Garrison had thought upon the subject at all. Washington and Jefferson, Franklin, Jay, and Hamilton had been Abolitionists before he was born, but theirs was a divided interest. The establishment of a more perfect union was the paramount object of their lives. John Wesley had denounced slavery in language quite as harsh as Garrison's, but his, too, was a divided interest, the religious revival of the eighteenth [108] century being his distinctive mission. Benezet, Woolman, and Lundy were saints, who had yearned with unspeakable sympathy for the black bondmen, and were indefatigable in good works in his behalf, but they had not that stern and iron quality without which reforms cannot be launched upon the attention of mankind. What his predecessors lacked, Garrison possessed to a marvelous degree — the undivided interest, the supremacy of a single purpose, the stern stuff out of which the moral reformer is made, and in which he is panoplied. They were all his, but there was another besides-immediatism. This element distinguished the movement against slavery, started by him, from all other movements begun before he arrived on the stage, for the emancipation of the slaves in the Union.

This doctrine of immediate as opposed to gradual emancipation, was not original with Garrison, nor was he the first to enunciate it. More than a dozen years before he was converted to it, Rev. George Bourne, in “The book and slavery Irreconcilable,” had shown that “the system (of slavery) is so entirely corrupt that it admits of no cure but by a total and immediate abolition. For a gradual emancipation is a virtual recognition of the right, and establishes the rectitude of the practice. If it be just for one moment, it is hallowed forever; and if it be inequitable, not a day should it be tolerated.” In 1824, eight years after the publication of Bourne's book, and five years before Garrison announced the doctrine in the Genius, the Rev. James Duncan maintained it, in his “Treatise on slavery,” with no uncertainty of sense or conviction. But neither Bourne [109] nor Duncan had been able to effect an incarnation of the doctrine, without which the good which it aimed at could not be achieved. What they failed to effect, it is the glory of Garrison that he achieved in his own person. He was “total and immediate Abolition” personified. “Truth is mighty and will prevail,” is a wise saying and worthy of acceptation. But this ultimate prevailing of truth depends mainly upon individual effort, applied not intermittently, but steadily to a particular segment of the circle of conduct. It is the long, strong, never-ending pull and tug upon the wheels of conduct, which marks the great reformer. He finds his age or country stuck in some Serbonian bog of iniquity. He prays, but he prays with his shoulders braced strenuously against the body of society, and he does not cease his endeavors until a revolution in conduct places his age or country on firm ground beyond its Serbonian bog. The coming of such a man is no accident. When the Hour. is ready and the Man comes, a new epoch in the life of a people arises from the conjunction. Of such vast consequence verily was the coming into American history of William Lloyd Garrison.

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